MPs have voted against an amendment to the Agriculture Bill, put forward by the House of Lords, to ensure food imported to the UK matches domestic standards.
The bill returned to the House of Commons yesterday (12th October), following the amends from the Lords, which would also have allowed parliament to oversee and vote on trade deals.
Despite a high level of cross-party support, MPs voted by 332 to 279, a margin of 53 votes, backing government plans to reject the amendment.
Many MPs said their constituents are worried about cheap, low quality imports undermining British farmers and the high environmental, animal welfare and food safety standards to which they adhere.
Labour MP Ruth Cadbury raised concerns that parliament will be “cut out” of full scrutiny and agreement on trade deals:
“The Minister said at the start of the debate that we should not worry about standards falling because British consumers will choose good-quality food, but as consumers we do not see the labels for much of our food, because almost half the food we eat is made up of processed ingredients or is catered and therefore hidden from consumer vision…”
She added: “If we do a trade deal with the US that has no conditions on animal welfare, our farmers will be at risk, because they will have to compete with low-cost agricultural mega-corporations, such as those US pork farmers still using sow stalls.”
Some MPs, however, claimed that insisting imports meet domestic standards would be “bad for trade”, describing concerns about cheap imports as “fear-mongering”.
Conservative MP Andrew Bowie said: “… We would put at risk our ability to sell our products overseas and put in serious jeopardy our ability to carry on importing many of the foodstuffs we do at the moment.”
Many MPs noted the importance of giving more power to the Trade and Agriculture Commission, however.
More than 1 million people previously signed an NFU petition urging the government to protect consumers and British farmers from cheap, low quality food imports.
The issue has seen widespread support, not only from farming groups, but also animal welfare campaigners, environmentalists, vets, consumers, chefs and public figures such as Joe Wicks, Jamie Oliver and Prue Leith.
The government has said it will not allow imports of products such as chlorinated chicken and farming minister Victoria Prentis said the government is “absolutely committed” to high standards, but this has yet to be enshrined in law.
Claudia Webb MP said during the debate: “It is all very well the Government opposing the lowering of food standards in the realm of hypotheticals, but when faced with a concrete opportunity to enshrine that in law, they refuse to act.”
Concluding the debate, Ms Prentis said existing laws are sufficient to maintain animal welfare, food standards and environmental protections:
“We are not going to be importing chlorine-washed chicken or hormone-treated beef. That is the law of this land.”
Responding to an interruption in the House, she added: “There is no question of ‘Not yet’. This Government are not going to change it under any circumstances. We have said very clearly that in all our trade negotiations we will not compromise our high environmental protection, animal welfare or food standards.”